Horan seeking All Black spirit to light up Mayo
MENTION Richie McCaw and James Horan smiles.
Horan lived in New Zealand until he was five and still looks out for the All Blacks and their inspirational captain.
To many, McCaw is fortunate not to spend more time in the sin-bin for lying in offside positions and illegally slowing down ruck ball -- risking a 'shoeing' from the studs of the opposition -- but for Horan, he's exactly the player you'd want on your side.
"At times he gets caught on the wrong side and he must be going through a serious amount of pain," says Horan. "But on the very next ball he'll do the same thing. How do you beat a guy that's not afraid to get hurt? Or is willing to die, so to speak, to beat you? He's unbelievable. His attitude is great."
Mayo will hardly need to go to such lengths to see off London this weekend, but Horan is still expecting similar application from his players.
Even by the standards of long-suffering Mayo supporters, last summer's championship was the worst in living memory as defeats to Sligo and Longford brought about an unprecedented period of introspection.
Former Irish Independent GAA correspondent Liam Horan was asked to undertake a strategic review of football in the county, while in his report to annual Convention, county secretary Sean Feeney questioned the "spinal problems" of the senior footballers that dogged the reigns of John Maughan and John O'Mahony.
When it came to finding O'Mahony's successor, Mayo were bold and avoided the temptation to appoint the man with the profile (Tommy Lyons), while the man with the track record (Maughan) dropped out.
Unexposed to inter-county management, James Horan represented something of a gamble but he had impressed at club level and, on the week of the decisive county board meeting, he steered Ballintubber to their first senior championship final, a game they subsequently won.
On his appointment, he promised change and so far, Horan has been good to his word. Familiar names like Aidan Kilcoyne, Barry Moran, Tom Parsons and Mark Ronaldson have all been dispensed with, and of the team that will start in Ruislip tomorrow, only seven of them started against Longford last year.
The county was trawled thoroughly over the winter. On Horan's first weekend in charge, trials featured players from 29 different clubs, including Crossmolina native Sean Kelly who is now part of the London set-up.
There has been no double-speak either. After a recent challenge match against Offaly, he described their performance as "terrible" and said that some players had played their way off the side. There were mitigating circumstances. Mayo had trained the night before and there was club action the following day, but like a gear bag at the pub, excuses were left at the door.
"The guys we let go, we had other guys in their positions showing up well in training," Horan said. "That's what we said we'd do. We want guys to invest in their training and give everything to it. That way you are prepared for the scenarios games will throw at you. These are ambitious guys who are willing to learn. We want to get the fundamentals right."
Off the pitch, they have been making all the right moves. Mayo have alternate travel plans should the ash cloud interfere with their flights to London. It may seem like a small detail but it's one that caught out no less a club than Barcelona before last year's Champions League semi-final. And after a league campaign he described as "up and down" Horan has a clear idea of what needs to be improved. "We had some good moments. But we had the (second) highest concession rate in the division. We have to be harder to beat.
"We have good players in certain positions and we'll try to play to that. You want to be giving the players the responsibility. They are the decision-makers on the field, you just have to give them the tools and the scenarios to be able to make the right one."
By September, McCaw could be on his way to securing the Webb Ellis trophy and Mayo will be looking at 60 years since Gerald Courell and Jackie Carney last brought Sam Maguire back. Sages in the county say Horan is the first forward to manage Mayo since -- an omen, perhaps?
He won't entertain talk like that but, right now, anything is possible.